Global Climate Litigation

Following the success in the Urgenda Climate Case, citizens around the world are taking their governments to court over their insufficient climate policies.  Urgenda also initiated the Climate Litigation Network to support climate cases worldwide. 

Belgium

In 2014, 11 concerned Belgian citizens united to challenge the inadequate climate policies of the Belgian government, as well as several regional governments. On 1 June 2015, the association Klimaatzaak (Climate Case) filed their statement of claim with the court. Since the start of the case more than 60,000 Belgians have joined in the call for more ambitious climate policies and added their names as co-plaintiffs. The claimants seek an order that the governments reduce the country’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 42% by 2025 and by at least 55% by 2030, against 1990 levels, to avoid dangerous climate change.

The case initially got heldup in court over a language dispute that was decided by the Belgian Court of Cassation in early 2018. In 2019, the claimants and the governments filed their submissions with the court. The final responses from the governments are due to be filed in March 2020, and a final judgment is expected in Autumn 2020. More information on the case is available here.

Canada

In Canada two cases are currently on foot.

In November 2018 a Quebec-based environmental nonprofit, ENvironnement JEUnesse, initiated the first stage of a class action lawsuit against the Canadian government on behalf of all the citizens of Quebec dismissed under the age of 35. They argue that the government’s GHG reduction targets are inadequate, and that failing to take aggressive action to avoid catastrophic climate change violates the fundamental rights of young people under Canadian and Quebec human rights charters. The application in French and English can be found here and here. In July 2019, the Superior Court of Quebec dismissed the application to commence a class action. The plaintiffs filled an appeal before to the Quebec Court of Appeal which is likely to be heard in the first quarter of 2020. More information about the case can be found here.

In October 2019, a group of 15 young people, represented by a coalition of NGOs, filed a claim against the Canadian federal government regarding its inadequate climate change policies on behalf of all children and young people in Canada and future generations. The claim alleges that the government’s inadequate policies have allowed dangerous levels of climate change to occur which has, and will, seriously impact the claimants’ health, their livelihoods and their cultural practices as First Nations People. They allege that the government is violating its obligations under the constitutional Charter of Fundamental Rights and the public trust doctrine. Further details of the case may be found here.

Colombia

25 young people from ages 7-25 brought a lawsuit against the Colombian government, several local governments, and a number of corporations. The young people claimed that climate change along with the government’s failure to reduce deforestation and meet its 2020 zero-net Amazon deforestation target threatened their fundamental rights to a healthy environment, life, health, food, and water. In April 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the young people, recognizing the Colombian Amazon as having its own rights, and ordered the government to make and carry out action plans to address deforestation in the Amazon. The Supreme Court’s decision (in Spanish) can be found here. In August 2019, the District Court of Bogota scheduled a number of hearings to monitor the implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision. Details on the hearings and the implementation of the judgment can be found here (in Spanish). More information about the case can be found here.

European Union

In May 2018, ten families, including children, filed a climate change case in the EU General Court against the EU Parliament and Council. The families, from Portugal, Germany, France, Italy, Romania, Kenya, Fiji, and the Swedish Sami Youth Association Sáminuorra, claim that the EU’s 2030 climate target is insufficient to prevent dangerous climate change or protect their fundamental rights to life, health, occupation and property. The applicants argued that the EU target of a 40% reduction in domestic GHG emissions below 1990 levels by 2030 is unlawful and that a greater level of ambition is required. The European Parliament and the Council have argued that the case is inadmissible. In May 2019, the European General Court dismissed the case because it did not meet the test for admissibility that has historically restricted the access of citizens to the EU courts. The claimants have filed an appeal with the European Court of Justice and its decision is pending. The application can be found here. Information about the first instance decision can be found here, and the appeal can be found here. More information on the case can be found here.

France

In December 2018, four non-profit organisations – Fondation pour la Nature et l’Homme, Greenpeace France, Notre Affaire à Tous, and Oxfam France – began the process of filing a climate change claim against the French government, by sending a letter of formal notice. The claim is supported by over 2 million people who have signed a petition in support. The lawsuit challenges the state’s inaction on both climate change mitigation and adaptation. On mitigation, it alleges that the government has failed to take the “necessary measures” to hold global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees in violation of its obligations under France’s Constitution (the Environmental Charter) as well as the European Convention on Human Rights to protect the rights to life and to family life (Articles 2 and 8). The claim emphasises that France’s emissions have increased since 2016 and that climate change has had, and will have, significant impacts on the health and mortality rate of French people.

In February 2019, the government filed its reply contesting the case. In March 2019, the claimants formally filed the case in the Administrative Court of Paris and filed additional pleadings in May 2019. The claimants are awaiting a further response from the government, and a court date for the trial. The letter of formal notice is here (in French; unofficial English translation here). A summary of the pleadings is here (in French) and a summary of the additional pleadings is (in English here) Supporters of the case can sign a petition on the L’Affaire du Siecle website. More information about the case can be found here.

Germany

In October 2018, Greenpeace Germany, with three German families who are organic farmers, filed a lawsuit against the German government, claiming that the government’s failure to meet its existing 2020 emissions reduction target of 40% by 2020 violates the families’ rights to life and health, property, and occupational freedom under Germany’s Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. They asked the court to declare that the government is legally obligated to still comply with its 2020 target. In October 2019, the Berlin Administrative Court dismissed the case on the basis that the previous 2020 target had been substituted by the decision of the government to adopt a new Climate Protection Act which lowered the 2020 target, in effect postponing the target until 2023. The court did however find that fundamental rights can be violated by the impacts of global warming and that the governments climate policy must be based on scientific facts and the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In the case of Germany however the court could not find a violations of fundamental rights yet. The plaintiffs decided not to appeal, but see the judgment as an important step in the recognition that governments have legal duties to take climate action.

General information about the case can be found here. Statements of the plaintiffs on the judgement of the Berlin Administrative Court can be found here and here. Coverage of the case can be found here (in German).

India

On 22 March 2017, nine-year-old Ridhima Pandey filed a petition against the government of India in the National Green Tribunal. Pandey asserted that the Indian government had failed to fulfil its duties to her and the Indian people to mitigate climate change, as it falls short of meeting the emission reduction policies and standards that it has set for itself. In her petition, Pandey asked the Tribunal to order the Indian government to prepare a carbon budget and national climate recovery plan in accordance with international agreements and scientific consensus. The petition was rejected by the National Green Tribunal on the basis that the matter was already covered under the environmental impact assessment. The petition filed by Ridhima is available here. Further details about the case are available here. In September 2019, Ridhima joined 15 other children in a communication to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (discussed below).

Ireland

On 23 October 2017, Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) launched a legal challenge against the Irish government’s failure to take the required action to avert dangerous climate change, particularly in the short-term. FIE claimed that the Irish National Mitigation Plan – one of the main planks in the Government’s climate change policy – does not do enough to reduce Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions and is a violation of Ireland’s Climate Act, the Irish Constitution and the government obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (Articles 2 and 8). FIE claimed that the Plan also falls short of the steps required by the Paris Agreement on climate change, highlighting that Irish emissions are set to increase by 2020.

The High Court of Ireland gave permission to proceed with the lawsuit, and the case was heard on 22 January 2019. In September 2019, the High Court dismissed the challenge on the basis that the government had broad discretion regarding the content of the Plan. However, the Court accepted that FIE, as an environmental organisation, had standing to challenge the Plan and that the Plan itself was justiciable (contrary to the government’s submissions). FIE have filed an appeal. The High Court’s judgment is available here. News coverage and analysis of the judgment is available here, here, and here. More information on the case can be found on the Climate Case Ireland website.

New Zealand

In November 2015, the New Zealand law student Sarah Thomson took her government to court for its insufficient climate ambitions. The case was heard in court in June 2017. On 2 November 2017, the High Court in Wellington issued its ruling. The Court held that climate change presents significant global risks and that the government is legally accountable for its actions to address climate change. The Court determined that the New Zealand Minister for Climate Change had acted unlawfully by failing to review the country’s climate change targets for 2050 after the publication of most recent IPCC Assessment Report. The Court refrained from issuing an order against the government, as the newly elected government took up office in October 2017 and committed itself to a target of CO2-neutrality in 2050. More information on the case is available here. You can download the statement of claim and the judgement of the court here and here.

Pakistan

Asghar Leghari, a Pakistani farmer, brought a climate change case against the Pakistani government for failing to implement its national climate change law and policy. In 2015, the Green Bench of the Lahore High Court upheld the claim, on the basis of the state’s obligations to protect the constitutional rights to life and to dignity. Finding that the government had done little to carry out its national climate law, the court directed government ministries to each nominate a focal point to ensure implementation and present a list of action points. The court also created a Climate Change Commission, mandated to monitor the government’s progress. The court decision can be found here.

Switzerland

On 26 May 2017, a group of senior Swiss women (the Klimaseniorinnen, Senior Women for Climate Protection) filed a legal complaint against the Swiss government (the Federal Council) and three responsible authorities in the Federal Administrative Court. The complaint asserted that the government’s climate policies are unlawful and violate constitutional and human rights because they fail to limit warming to the politically agreed ‘safe level’. The senior women demanded an immediate increase in the ambition of the country’s mitigation targets for 2020 and 2030.

In November 2018, the Federal Administrative Court dismissed the case, ruling that the women are not particularly affected by the government’s climate change mitigation measures beyond the impact on the general public. The women appealed to the Swiss Supreme Court in January 2019. A decision on the appeal remains pending. The Federal Administrative Court’s decision can be found in German and English here and here, and the appeal filing is here (German). More information about the case can be found here.

United Kingdom

In December 2017 climate charity Plan B and 11 members of the public aged 9 to 79 filed a climate change case against the UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The claimants argued that the UK’s 2050 climate target, set in 2008, was not in line with the Paris Agreement nor with new scientific evidence. They argued that the Secretary of State should legally have to increase the target. In July 2018, the High Court decided not to hold a full hearing of the case, finding that Plan B’s arguments had no prospect of success. Plan B and the 11 members of the public appealed to the Court of Appeal, which rejected the appeal in January 2019, for the reasons given the High Court. The order of the Court of Appeals can be found here. More information can be found here.

United States

In 2015, 21 young people filed a climate change claim against the U.S. federal government in the District Court of Oregon. In the case, also known as Youth v. Trump, the youth claimants claim that for decades their federal government has actively contributed to causing climate change and that in doing so it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.

 

In November 2016 the youth claimants survived an attempt by the government and the fossil fuel industry to have the case thrown out of court at an early stage. In a landmark opinion and order, the Federal District Court of Oregon held that “the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society,” and rejected the government’s motions to dismiss the case. Since then, the Trump Administration has made several applications to stay the trial, which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court have repeatedly denied. The government’s latest appeal of the 2016 decision is currently pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, leading to a delay of the trial, which had been set for October 2018. In January 2019, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted the claimants request to fast-track the government’s appeal. However, its judgment on the appeal is still pending and is antivipated by early 2020. In February 2019, the claimants also applied for a court order to stop all new fossil fuel infrastructure development until the case is decided which has not yet been determined. More information on the case can be found here.

THE OSLO PRINCIPLES

On 30 March 2015 the Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations were launched, formulated by an international group of eminent jurists, including High Court judges, law professors and advocates from countries such as Brazil, China, India, the US and the Netherlands. The Oslo principles hold that regardless of the existence of international agreements, governments already have a legal obligation to avert the harmful effects of climate change, based on existing international human rights law, environmental law and tort law.

 

The Oslo group endorses the arguments that Urgenda brings forward in its climate case and also provides support to initiatives in other countries to involve the courts in their efforts to contain climate change.

On April 8, Dutch daily newspaper Trouw published an extensive interview with Jaap Spier, Advocate-General to the Dutch Supreme Court, concerning the Oslo Principles and the Urgenda climate case. According to Spier, ‘Courts can force countries to adopt effective climate policies. Court cases are perhaps the only way to break through the political apathy about climate change.’
From the article: Does a judge need to be an activist in order to make a statement about climate change? “No”, says Spier, “it is just a matter of applying existing law, although undoubtedly not all judges will be open to this. Judges with the courage to give a ruling on this will one day be applauded, whereas those who don’t will eventually be tarred and feathered.”

An informal translation of the interview can be downloaded here. The Guardian published this piece on the Oslo principles by two legal experts.